At a certain point everything Edward Snowden says about his motives for revealing details of the secretive PRISM programme turn to mush. We are at that point.
- Although widely depicted in media as a young idealist, Snowden was a high school and army flop who found validation as an IT worker with the NSA and subsidiary contractors. What did Mr Snowden, as David Brooks rightly asks, think NSA was—Catholic Relief Services?
- If Mr Snowden did know that NSA is involved in surveillance among its other remits, why was he shocked to discover things about its activities that even the general public has known since 2005 when a NYT article revealed that the FISA court often acted as a rubber stamp for government operations? Court procedures have been extensively reviewed and amended since then, and dozens of requests have been rejected or modified before being granted: something else Mr Snowden must have known, or should have known.
- Snowden claims that his outrage over the PRISM program “grew over time,” though there is no indication there was a corresponding intensification of NSA’s operations within the program over the time he was with NSA: what he was doing on day one he was doing on his last day. The sole reasonable explanation of his staying on was to continue to monitor the program and to gather information in a clandestine way—in short, to spy on the government with the intention of revealing information to third parties. By one definition this is espionage, but by an older definition it is treason—a violation of an oath he swore to uphold and protect the Constitution.
- Why if Mr Snowden claims to care about free speech and privacy did he head for Hong Kong a few days before he was told by The Guardian and the Washington Post that the stories would be published? Why didn’t he stay in Hawaii and meet reporters on his front lawn? Even today, no warrant for his arrest or extradition order has been issued—which must be very disappointing to a wannabe martyr. Imagine Christianity without Nero and lions.
- Even if he is naïve enough to think that the relatively mild constraints on Hong Kong’s press make it the “envy of the world,”, successive reporters have marveled that China itself represents everything Mr Snowden claims to abhor: the iron fist of the state over the private interests of its citizens, and where internet privacy is a faraway dream. As I sit at my computer, I cannot access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or my own rather innocent blog—the one you are reading—because with all other WordPress-based media it has come under fire as fueling anti-Chinese opinion. On most days it is impossible to access Google except through various backdoors or sister sites, Google NZ being the most reliable and the one almost all Chinese use.
- Why did The Guardian choose for the date of the release of this information the window during which Mr Obama would be meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in California. If this target was chosen by The Guardian specifically, to cause maximum impact and damage, then its chief reporter on the case, Glenn Greenwald, a man whose appetite for outrage rivals a Hussar’s for raw goat, should be questioned about what he knows of Snowden’s connections to China.
- Despite his claims that he is in the game to out corruption and not to avoid prosecution, he is chiefly successful at hiding and giving interviews on the lam, shouting “I am not trying to avoid prosecution” from undisclosed locations.
- Mr Snowden has, by all accounts, lied about the degree of access he (or anyone else at his clearance level) had to private information, conversations, and classified “secrets.” Perhaps it is possible even he thought he had this access. He has now claimed provocatively that the PRISM program and NSA had hacked into Hong Kong and Chinese computer systems, with special reference to those of businessmen, universities, industry and students. None of these targets as targets makes any sense, unless the real point of this mini-bomb is to get opinion in those communities to shift in his direction. In short, Mr Snowden seems to be out of information and what he hasn’t already fabricated he is now making up on the run in order to create a protective smokescreen for himself. His quiver is empty and he is shooting imaginary arrows at everything and everyone.
It is a shame that words like “hero’ and “whistleblower” have been used of someone who is basically a tech-savvy social catastrophe. If there is a crime here, it is the fact that NSA hired him, trusted him, and trained him—that our security obsessed nation will scrape this low in the barrel to fill positions that require honesty, integrity and a commitment to the national interest.
In fact, “national interest” is not a concept he appears to understand. And it is true, the phrase can be used to disguise mischief. No government has ever claimed that what it was doing it was doing to abrogate the rights of its people. But to accept Edward Snowden as a hero is to say that his understanding of national interest is superior to that of the government, and many of us aren’t nearly ready to accept that calculus. Governments like the United States choose their leaders; tyrannies do not.
I find it depressing that sales of Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed because of this rather smarmy interruption in our national life, and that thousands of shoddy analogies will be made between NSA (or the American government) and Big Brother. Orwell was writing about the rise of the technical, unrepresentative state. He could not have anticipated (he died in 1950) the world of the real 1984 let alone the world beyond that. In fact, nothing is more democratic that the internet culture that makes an Edward Snowden and his noxious ideas possible. That is why real totalitarian states despise it and try to control it.
I happen to believe that in a representative democracy government operates within the rule of law to achieve the national interest. That is what people elect other people to do. It is not a blank check. There is a limit on the account. The people they elect are much like them—which, often, is not saying much for the quality of the parliaments we get, but we also get to move them in and out and remodel them in the long haul. I would be very interested in knowing whether Mr Snowden voted in the last election, as his idol, Ron Paul, was not on the national ticket.
When Snowden enters the real China from the slightly irreal Hong Kong, he will live in a country without elections. Where government watches the moves of every internet user. Where surfing is unheard of, and “Page not Available” on English language sites is the most familiar message he is likely to find–because censors work 24-7 to edit, remove and control any stories unfavorable to the Party. The commemoration of Tiananmen Square last week was outlawed. The relative of Nobel Laurate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison on charges barely comprehensible—but endangering state security is the best translation. Uighurs (Chinese Muslims in the far west of the country) have been killed by the hundreds in the last few years as they campaign for their civil rights. Not hosed down, mind you: killed. Mr Snowden comes from a country firmly fixed on its navel; these stories do not regularly appear in American media. We are obsessed with the important things like tornadoes and Kim Kardashian’s fashion disasters. But he now lives in a world where they do happen, all the time.
Tech savvy and bright as he may be, Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I wish Ed Snowden every success in mastering it. Because now that his backpack and pockets are empty of saleable information, that’s the only way he will survive and he will be competing with millions of well-educated young Chinese men and women for jobs in his profession. The hardest one to land, and the most prestigious? 政府审查中宣部–Government Censor for the Ministry of Propaganda.